Why the Irish Support Palestine

Once upon a time, Ireland was a huge supporter of Jewish aspirations in the Promised Land. What happened?

As the world scrambled to respond to Israel's deadly May 31 raid on a Gaza-bound flotilla, the first reaction came from an unlikely source: Ireland. On the morning of June 5, the MV Rachel Corrie, which had set sail from the east coast of Ireland in an attempt to breach the Gaza blockade, was intercepted by Israeli forces. The vessel's Irish passengers included Mairead Maguire, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate for her work to bring peace to Northern Ireland.

The ill-tempered diplomatic spat between the Irish and Israeli governments that accompanied the Rachel Corrie's journey to Gaza is just the latest episode in the countries' long history of antagonistic relations. Tensions recently escalated again with the Irish expulsion of an Israeli diplomat amid Irish anger over Israel's alleged use of eight forged Irish passports in the recent murder of a Hamas official in Dubai.

The Palestinian issue has long occupied a place in the Irish consciousness far greater than geographic, economic, or political considerations appear to merit. Perceived parallels with the Irish national experience, however, have inspired an emotional connection with Palestine that has inspired Irish activism in the region up to the present day.

At first, in the 1920s and 1930s, Irish sympathies lay squarely with the Zionists and drew heavily on the presumed parallels between historic Irish and Jewish suffering, as well as the shared traumatic experience of large-scale migration in the 19th century.

Drawing a parallel with their own history of occupation, the Irish also championed the Zionist struggle for self-determination against the British. A correspondent to The Bell, a leading Irish magazine, raged over current events in Mandate Palestine in March 1945: "Never let it be forgotten that the Irish people ... have experienced all that the Jewish people in Palestine are suffering from the trained 'thugs' 'gunning tarzans' and British 'terrorists' that the Mandatory power have imposed upon the country."

But Irish nationalist perceptions toward Israel soon shifted. The country's own anti-British rebellion led to a traumatic civil war that left six northern counties of the island under the British crown. Once the Zionist movement accepted the partition of Palestine, the Irish began to draw unflattering parallels between Israeli policies and their own divided existence. To many, the Jewish state now looked less like a besieged religious-national community struggling valiantly for its natural rights and more like a colony illegitimately established by British force of arms and intent on imposing itself on an indigenous population.

The renowned Irish novelist Sean O'Faolain, writing in November 1947 as the United Nations debated a partition plan for Mandate Palestine, expressed this sentiment when he rejected the comparison between the Irish and Zionist struggles: "if we could imagine that Ireland was being transformed by Britain into a national home for the Jews, I can hardly doubt which side you would be found."

Not even the successful Zionist military struggle against the British in the late 1940s did much to alter the view that Israel was "a little loyal Jewish Ulster," in the words of Sir Ronald Storrs, the first British governor of Jerusalem. Like Ulster, the northern province of Ireland under British control that was seen as a bulwark against Irish nationalism, Israel appeared designed to hold back the tide of Arab nationalism.

The "Vatican factor," as the writer and politician Conor Cruise O'Brien liked to call the Catholic Church's influence over Irish social and political life, also affected Irish perceptions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In October 1948, Pope Pius XII issued an encyclical, In Multiplicibus Curis, endorsing an "international character" to Jerusalem and its vicinity. From that time, the Irish government adopted the Vatican's concern for the status of Jerusalem's holy places and mirrored its call for international supervision of the city.

What to do about Palestine was the subject of regular discussions between high-ranking Irish and Vatican officials. Over dinner in Dublin in 1961, Con Cremin, a senior official in the Irish foreign ministry, advised his dinner guest, Israel's ambassador to Britain, Arthur Lourie, that the issue of the holy places "was a relevant factor" affecting Ireland's ties to Israel. "[I]t is a mistake to write off the Vatican position," Cremin continued, "by reference to what might to the normal person seem to be realism."

As a result, Ireland only extended de jure recognition to Israel in 1963, 15 years after its declaration of independence. By the late 1960s, Ireland was increasingly preoccupied with the fate of the Palestinian Arab refugees, whose numbers had swelled following the Six Day War in June 1967. Speaking in 1969 in the Dail, the lower house of the Irish parliament, Irish Foreign Minister Frank Aiken described the settlement of this problem as the "main and most pressing objective" of Ireland's Middle East policy. By the time Aiken left office later that year, Irish policy was set in stone: There could be no peace without the repatriation of the maximum possible number of Palestinian refugees and full compensation, not merely resettlement, for the remainder.

After Ireland joined the European Union in 1973, successive governments in Dublin have taken the lead in championing the Palestinian cause within Europe. In February 1980, Ireland was the first EU member to call for the establishment of a Palestinian state. It was also the last to allow Israel to open a residential embassy, in December 1993.

Israel has responded to this cold shoulder with anger and bewilderment. Speaking on Irish radio in 1980, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin described Irish policy as tantamount to acceptance of the PLO's "right to destroy the Jewish state."

Clashes between Irish U.N. peacekeeping troops in Lebanon and the Israeli army and its proxy Christian militias between 1978 and 2000 made relations worse. Forty-five Irish soldiers died while serving the United Nations in Lebanon, and the Irish government blamed Israel directly or indirectly for at least 15 of those deaths, including the April 1980 kidnapping and execution of privates Thomas Barrett and Derek Smallhorne by the South Lebanon Army, a Christian militia allied with Israel. One Irish politician evoked the general anger when he admitted that he had lost much of his previous sympathy when Israel "commenced to use our volunteer soldiers as target practice."

Throughout the Oslo Accords era and the post-Oslo era, Irish governments continued to provide the Palestinian cause with valuable, if not unlimited, support. Speaking before the Foreign Policy Association in New York City in September 2000, Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern explained that the "moral dimension" of international affairs was the "first and foremost" reason for Irish involvement. As citizens of a small, neutral country on the margins of Europe, the Irish public's primary interest in foreign affairs relates to international law, human rights, anti-imperialism, and a proud history of engagement with the United Nations. This worldview, combined with a healthy appetite for the freedom-fighter slogans and anti-colonial language that left previous generations weak at the knees, explains the ongoing attachment to the Palestinian "underdogs."

The Irish fixation with Palestine continued even after the optimism of the Oslo era was long past. In June 2003, Brian Cowen, then Ireland's foreign minister, visited Yasir Arafat during the height of the Second Intifada -- and even after Israel refused to host foreign dignitaries who met the Palestinian leader while visiting the region. Cowen's visit came at a time when terror was at an all-time high and when the U.S. government, a majority of Israelis, and significant sectors of the Palestinian population had lost faith in Arafat's capacity to lead the Palestinians to statehood. But Cowen spoke for many in Ireland when he described Arafat as "the symbol of the hope of self-determination of the Palestinian people" and praised him for his "outstanding work ... tenacity, and persistence."

Irish NGOs continue to work actively to translate public support for Palestinian rights into action. Ireland can claim one of the most organized and effective chapters of the international Palestine Solidarity Campaign. In 2004, it submitted a petition to the government signed by 12,000 members of the public and 52 members of parliament, members of the European Parliament, senators, and independent politicians calling for a boycott of Israel. Since then, it has undertaken a number of high-profile campaigns to isolate and delegitimize Israel, including an attempt to get Aer Lingus, an airline partially owned by the government, to cancel flights to the Holy Land. It has been ably supported by the Irish Anti-War Movement, an umbrella body for activist groups that organized a rowdy picket at the Israeli Embassy in Dublin during the flotilla crisis.

The Irish government, which is committed to following Europe's agreed-upon Palestine policy and keen on expanding trade and research and development links with Israel's high-tech sector, will never break ranks with its EU partners and endorse an economic, academic, or cultural boycott of Israel. But there is almost total unanimity across all political parties that Israel is to blame for the ongoing failure to find peace. Not even the partisan political climate that has existed since the economic meltdown of 2008 has dented consensus on this point.

Israel's appointment of Lord David Trimble, a former leader of the Ulster Unionist Party and recipient of the 1998 Nobel Peace Prize, as one of the foreign observers into the flotilla affair has little chance of shifting public opinion on this issue. Despite earning the admiration of many in the Irish nationalist community for his role in bringing peace to Northern Ireland, he comes from a Unionist tradition, which calls for Northern Ireland to retain its political ties to Great Britain, which has always been viewed as pro-Israeli.

Many Unionists identify with Israel as an isolated community, surrounded by hostile forces and lacking international support. Their pro-Israeli sentiments also are a reaction to Irish Republican support for the Palestinian cause. In the 1980s, a mural in a nationalist area of Belfast depicted armed Irish Republican Army (IRA) and PLO members under the slogan: "IRA-PLO one struggle." Despite peace, these cleavages still run deep: In response to the Second Intifada, northern Protestant areas flew the Israeli flag, and Catholic areas raised the Palestinian national colors.

Up to the present day, Sinn Fein, the IRA's political wing, which has elected representatives in the Irish and British parliaments and shares power in Northern Ireland, has continued to be a virulent critic of Israel. In 2006, Aengus Ó Snodaigh, the party's international affairs and human rights spokesperson in the Dublin parliament, described Israel as "one of the most abhorrent and despicable regimes on the planet." This May, he was one of three Irish politicians prevented by authorities from leaving Cyprus to join the Gaza-bound flotilla.

The Irish tendency to view the outside world in terms of local obsessions is still with us. The powerful political narrative connecting Ireland to Israel and Palestine continues to inspire its people, and their government, to action. And in the eyes of many Irish, the "little Jewish Ulster" still sits at the heart of the many problems plaguing the Middle East.

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Stealing Colombia's Criminals

How extradition is ruining Latin America's courts, robbing victims of justice, and undermining the drug war.

On May 13, 2008, Diego Fernando Murillo, aka "Don Berna," the notorious Colombian warlord and heir to famed drug kingpin Pablo Escobar, walked off a plane in suburban New York, his hands cuffed behind him. Thirteen other high-profile leaders of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, a heavily armed, well-financed paramilitary group on the U.S. State Department's list of foreign terrorist organizations, also arrived via Drug Enforcement Administration planes across the United States that same day to face criminal charges in U.S. courts for narcotrafficking. The mass extradition was hailed by U.S. and Colombian officials as a victory for justice and a model of hemispheric cooperation.

In reality, it was a travesty -- the accused were only charged with crimes related to cocaine smuggling into the United States and walked away from indictments on hundreds of murders, kidnappings, and other atrocities back home in Colombia. It set a troubling precedent for a government that would rather export its problems than deal with them. Worse, as the United States poached these top criminals, it deprived Colombia's legal system of the chance to prosecute local crimes, robbed victims of the possibility for any resolution, sacrificed vital evidence that could be used in stopping further offenses, and might have pushed the country further away from building a lasting peace with its violent and virulent armed groups.

Since President Álvaro Uribe came to power in 2002, nearly 1,200 Colombian nationals -- including top drug lords and cartel operators from the country's simmering rebel insurgency -- have been extradited to the United States to stand trial. Of the nearly 57,000 foreign-born prisoners in U.S. jails today, Colombian citizens make up the second-largest national group (with Mexicans the largest). But though extradition was once widely supported as a means of bypassing Colombia's massive legislative and judicial corruption, today it is so controversial that it has become the subject of a standoff between the presidency and the Supreme Court.

The extradition binge was born of the chaos of Colombia in the 1980s and 1990s, when cartels held the state hostage to their terror campaign. Their power extended throughout the country: Drug gangs established alliances with leftist insurgents, such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), and as time went on, also permeated their rivals -- a network of right-wing paramilitaries that morphed from community protectorates into brutal occupiers that trafficked cocaine and kidnapped citizens. The cartels also dug deep into the Colombian political class and found high-level allies, to the extent that they were able to successfully change the Colombian Constitution in 1991 to prohibit the extradition of Colombian citizens. After years of the worst kidnappings and assassinations the region had ever seen -- as well as a boom in the cocaine trade to the United States -- pressure from Washington at last persuaded the country to allow extraditions in late 1997, and the worst drug kingpins were sent abroad.

Both Uribe and his predecessor, Andrés Pastrana, have since used extradition as a tool, shipping mob bosses to the United States for prosecution. But extradition is not universally good -- it is best used only when a criminal has fled to a place of relative impunity or the state itself is incapable of prosecuting the crimes. In Colombia, however, this is not the case. The country's justice system is now hailed as one of the region's best, so strong that its investigators and prosecutors tour throughout Latin America training their counterparts. A recent wave of convictions against a handful of military and congressional officials for egregious human rights violations is proof that, backed by political will, the system is fully capable of reaching sound convictions. Extraditions, however, achieve the opposite: They discredit the courts, with a chilling effect on the local administration of justice.

The paramilitary extraditions are a case in point. In 2003, the Uribe government promised to suspend extraditions so that demobilized paramilitaries could proceed through a special criminal process, known as Justice and Peace. In exchange for slap-on-the-wrist sentences, paramilitary forces were asked to confess their crimes and reveal information about criminal networks. Although not without flaws, the demobilizations saw a number of paramilitaries confess to atrocities, which led to the exhumation of disappeared persons and provided leads for criminal cases against top intelligence and military leaders and dozens of nationally elected officials. Things were moving forward -- until the May 2008 extraditions of the top paramilitary bosses brought the confessions to a standstill.

Victims' associations and Colombian human rights groups reacted with uproar. The National Movement of Victims of State Crimes declared it "another maneuver to guarantee impunity in Colombia." Since their colleagues were sent abroad, paramilitaries have been reluctant to participate in the Justice and Peace process. Top commanders almost entirely halted their collaboration with the Colombian justice system; others fled and are once again rearming and taking control over national territory.

Take the example of Ever Veloza García, a paramilitary leader who was extradited to the United States in March 2009. Prior to his extradition, Veloza provided names of Colombian Army generals who allegedly ordered and provided support for a series of massacres; he attested to the complicity of the private sector in the assassination of hundreds of banana-plantation workers, many of whom were linked to labor unions. His depositions were specific, naming names and backing the allegations with evidence beyond his testimony. Until his extradition gagged him.

With ruptures of the confessional scheme like this, the Colombian justice system has missed an opportunity to dismantle ties of the local and national elite to death squads, unearth the truth surrounding the assassination of opposition leaders, return hundreds of thousands of hectares of land to internally displaced persons, and determine the motives behind the thousands of massacres and disappearances perpetrated by the paramilitary groups.

But the U.S. ambassador to Colombia, William Brownfield, defended the extraditions during the uproar, claiming that they "made Colombia and the United States better countries." Uribe maintained that the extraditions were a security issue and accused critics of being criminal sympathizers. He also claimed that the extraditions have not interfered with the confessional proceedings and that all bilateral cooperation mechanisms were in place to continue the Justice and Peace process.

The Colombian Supreme Court disagreed and tried throughout 2009 to stay the extraditions. But Uribe ignored the request for deferral. When that effort failed, the court adopted a harsher stance, drawing on constitutional and international law to preclude the extraditions of individuals involved in the confessional Justice and Peace scheme.

In a March 2010 decision that denied a U.S. request for Daniel Rendón, a known paramilitary and drug kingpin, the court stated that the Justice and Peace process had been undermined by the extraditions, that victims' rights had been violated, that the operation of the Colombian justice system had been curtailed, and that the gravity of the crimes for which the surrender was requested was dwarfed by the far more egregious human rights-related crimes with which Rendón was being charged in Colombia. The court went so far as to suggest that extraditions had become an obstacle to the pursuit of justice for crimes against humanity -- and hinted that the International Criminal Court could step in to rectify the situation.

Fixing the system wouldn't necessarily take dramatic action. "Sequencing" is the real concern: Perpetrators should first be brought to justice in Colombia for human rights-related crimes, before they are surrendered to U.S. authorities on drug charges. This is the standard practice elsewhere in the region -- in Mexico, for example.

Strangely, the U.S. government still sees a different reality and has refused to budge. It has rejected the idea of delayed or deferred surrender. After the Colombian Supreme Court denied three extraditions between February and May 2010, Brownfield said that the United States would continue to try to persuade the court to concede the extraditions. Lanny Breuer, assistant attorney general for the criminal division of the U.S. Department Justice, testified in a May 18 hearing that the extradition arrangement with Colombia typifies "the rule-of-law approach we seek to implement around the world." And now, ominously, officials in the United States speak about using the Colombian model in Mexico, where another drug war is raging and a fragile legal system needs support.

That would be a terrible mistake. In Colombia, extradition is becoming a mighty obstacle to peace, particularly with the FARC, whose steps toward disarmament have now been slowed as they've watched how paramilitaries were "betrayed." It has discredited an otherwise strong local justice system and has put victims' rights in the hands of U.S. prosecutors, whose primary interest is not unearthing the atrocities perpetrated or the macabre links between paramilitaries and the Colombian establishment.

Unfortunately for Colombia, change does not seem to be on the horizon. Uribe's former defense minister, Juan Manuel Santos, seems certain to win the upcoming presidential runoff election. Given what we know of his views, neither an end to the standoff with the Supreme Court -- nor any real justice -- is likely to come to Bogotá anytime soon.

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